After one of the more exciting opening days in recent memory, the Cardinals find themselves exactly where they were at the end of last year: Trailing the Cincinnati Reds for the NL Central lead. With so many emotions running through my head right now, it’s rather difficult to find a place to start. Although opening day games mean relatively little in the grand scheme of things, a lot will be made of Thursday’s action over the next few days. Before getting too caught up in the results, it’s important to take the time to enjoy the fact that baseball is back. That alone is enough to bring a smile to my face.
It was a picture perfect afternoon at Busch Stadium, and Cards fans couldn’t have asked for a better day to welcome in a new season. Fans were treated to a variety of pregame festivities, including everything from a reunion of hall-of-famers to a moment of silence for Tsunami victims in Japan to a first pitch thrown out by Jim Edmonds. However, about three hours later, all of this opening day excitement faded into bitter disappointment.
Early in the game, the Cards showed no signs of a spring training hangover and they were able to focus on the task at hand just moments after an emotional and historic pregame showcase. Chris Carpenter, making his sixth career opening day start, wasted no time getting to work as he got out of the top of the first on just 14 pitches. Fans were on their feet early as Colby Rasmus tripled in the bottom half and later scored on a Matt Holliday single to put St. Louis ahead.
Heading into the bottom of the eighth, the game was tied at two and the Cards never trailed. After an Albert Pujols fly ball was caught on the warning track, Matt Holliday brought Busch Stadium to life with a home run that hit the top of the center field fence and bounced over.
The scene was set. The Cardinals had a 3-2 lead headed to the ninth and Ryan Franklin was in position to close the door and get the team in the win column. Franklin collected two quick outs and only one batter stood between the Redbirds and a 1-0 record. That batter was 23-year-old Cameron Maybin. After getting ahead in the count, Franklin reminded us all why he will never be considered an elite closer. Maybin blasted a 425-foot homer to straight away center that landed in the grass, and just like that, the stadium was completely silent. The look on Franklin’s face was enough to tell the whole story.
The bottom of the St. Louis order failed to do anything in the bottom of the ninth, and for the first time since 1992, the Cardinals were headed to extra innings on opening day. Nothing like some extra inning action in the first game of the year. At least the fans got their money’s worth. The 10th inning passed without a run to break the tie, and the teams headed to the 11th.Again, the first two San Diego batters were ousted. What looked like a harmless situation suddenly became dangerous. A string of three straight two-out singles put the Padres ahead by a score of 5-3, a lead they would not give up.
As much as I don’t wish to discuss the details of how the Cardinals gave up the go-ahead run in the 11th, it must be addressed. With Chase Headley on first, Maybin got a bloop single to fall into right center. Headley advanced to third as Jon Jay fielded the ball. What happens next is enough to give Tony La Russa nightmares for awhile. Jay threw a weak two-hopper to the cutoff man Ryan Theriot, who took his eye off the ball and let it bounce off of his foot. As the ball rolled back toward right field, Headley took a chance and sprinted for home. Headley isn’t the fastest dude in the world, but by the time Theriot recovered, he could only make a wild desperation throw to home that sailed over the head of Yadier Molina.
The Cardinals did have a chance to answer with the bottom of the order, but the Padres, with the benefit of a lights-out closer in Heath Bell, sealed the deal to make a strong statement on the road. From the time Maybin tied things up, you just never got the sense that the Cards were going to win the game. They lost all the momentum and confidence that they had built up throughout the game.
Looking back, we certainly saw it all today. The good, the bad, and the ugly were all on display. The Cardinals lost the game in disappointing and shocking fashion, but there are, as always, many positives to take away from the game. Now I’ll run through some of my thoughts and reactions.
First of all, for the first time in a long time, Albert Pujols did not play like Albert Pujols. I’m not ready to bring up the whole contract distraction argument quite yet, but there is no doubt that Pujols wasn’t on his game today. In fact, Pujols’ 0-5 performance was so bad that he made history. Albert is now the first player in MLB history to ground into three double plays on opening day and it is the first time he has ever done so in any game in his career. I was surprised to learn that this had never been done before, and for Pujols of all people to be the first, it’s unbelievable. “The Machine” turned out to be a double play machine, and it actually hurt his team’s chances of winning by 43%. Pujols hurting his team’s chances? What!? Hard to believe, but true indeed.
This goes without saying, but the Cards did themselves no favors defensively. Skip Schumaker dropped a perfect throw to second by Molina which would have completed a strike em’ out throw em’ out double play to end the inning. The next batter drove in the run from second with a double, and Schumaker did what he does best: Make errors that directly lead to runs being scored by the opposition. Of course as I already mentioned, the Cards made a mess of what should have been a routine bloop single, and it cost them the game. I wonder if Brendan Ryan would have kicked that cutoff ball if he was the shortstop. Interesting thought, isn’t it? I mentioned before the season started that St. Louis was sacrificing defense for offense, and it already came back to haunt them.
This brings me to the Ryan Franklin issue. I guess they call this Redbird Rants for a reason, so here I go. Ryan Franklin needs to go. He’s as liable a closer as you’re going to find in baseball today, and his age doesn’t make me like him any more than I already do. We’ve played one game and he is already half way to last year’s blown save total. Yes it sounds a lot worse than it is when I say it like that, but nothing is pretty about this guy. Most of his saves keep fans on the edge of their seats, and he is never going to be the dominating closer that so many other teams value. He let himself, his team, and the fans down in a major way today, and if I’m in that clubhouse, I’m pissed off about it. The team did its job by maintaining the lead heading into the ninth, but he singlehandedly blew it. Maybe he should think about growing out a full-fledged Brian Wilson beard because that ugly overgrown soul patch isn’t working.
So I did mention that there were some positive aspects of today’s game. They seem irrelevant now, but I will give credit where credit is due. Up until the 11th, the Cardinals had a base-runner in every inning. It would have been nice to see them cash in a bit more, but 12 hits is a strong showing. I was very impressed with Colby Rasmus, who went 2-3 with a triple, a run scored, and two walks. If he can continue this, the Cardinals offense will be good to go. Obviously, I was also impressed with Matt Holliday, who finished with three hits, two RBIs, one walk, and one homer. Finally, David Freese played a nice hot corner and looked quite healthy. He came up with a web gem, and his defense made an impact for sure.
I’m sure there were no smiles in the clubhouse after this one, and to make matters worse, the Reds won in thrilling fashion after trailing most of the game. It’s clear that this team has several question marks at this point. Let’s hope these issues can be resolved as soon as possible because the Cards can’t afford to lose too much ground in the division.